Given the pace of the 2020 news cycle—and, well, the fact of the presidential election—you’d be forgiven for missing a rather important news item out of Poland: the colossal wave of recent protests stemming from a court decision prohibiting the abortion of children with birth defects.
To grasp the issue properly, a bit of background is in order. In 1993, shortly following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the heavily Catholic Poland shifted away from the expansive abortion regime guaranteed under Communist rule and adopted a “compromise” position. Under the compromise, abortion was allowed in cases of rape, danger to the life or health of the mother, and birth defects (including non-life-threatening fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome).
Over the past several years, under the leadership of the “Law and Justice” party, Poland (like its near neighbor Hungary) has increasingly moved in a conservative populist direction. In service of that end, Law and Justice policymakers have taken a series of controversial political steps, including a set of reforms to the Constitutional Court that was widely denounced as “court packing.” (Anne Applebaum’s recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism provides an accessible, if opinionated, overview of the subject—though be sure to also read some of the responses from her critics.) That history matters because earlier this month, the Constitutional Court voted to eliminate the third abortion exception—abortion in cases of fetal abnormality.
The public reaction has been, to say the least, massive (and was sufficient to force the government to delay implementation of the ruling indefinitely). Over at Rod Dreher’s blog, a Warsaw-based reader provides an on-the-ground description of what’s currently unfolding:
First of all, the “Black Protests” erupted with force not seen in Poland before. Not only in big (“liberal”) cities, but also in smaller towns, hundreds of thousands of people protest. Every single day streets are full with people day and night. They shout: “wyperdalać” (fuck off!) and “to jest wojna!” (this is war!).
Almost all of my friends (even Catholic) are taking part in these protests. Not only the left-wing, but even those who seemed to be moderately conservative, vocally oppose the Constitutional Court’s decision. Many of them are very vehement. Numerous institutions and brands, including almost all the universities in Poland, published statements openly supporting the protests and encouraging students to take part in them (even though we are dealing with Covid!). Since the Church hierarchy openly lobbied for the change in law, many of the protesters vandalised churches and expressed vulgar, aggressive remarks about the Church. Masses were interrupted, curses and proabortion slogans painted on churches’ walls.
As someone who is, quite frankly, appalled by the practice of aborting children deemed “abnormal,” I find this backlash extremely sad and disheartening, particularly given Poland’s historic reputation as a distinctively Catholic country. If you haven’t spent much time in conservative circles lately, Poland is probably the most frequent country suggested (only-half-jokingly) as a place of refuge following the potential collapse of the American imperium. To be clear, I’m not endorsing the Law and Justice party or its prior actions—I haven’t done enough research to comment intelligently one way or the other—but I’m very much on board with the principle that people with developmental differences have a right to exist.
Beyond the underlying issue, though, it strikes me that this backlash has interesting and significant implications for the theory of social change favored by a particular strain of Catholic integralist political thought (yes, the movement has evolved to the point that there are different, radically divergent “tendencies“—but that’s a subject for a different piece).
Beginning from the basic principles of integralist thought, a plausible political path from here (late-modern liberalism) to there (a renewed, holistic social order) is not at all obvious—a point not lost on the theory’s critics. Some proponents, however, have risen to the task. A few years back, in a pair of much-discussed articles in American Affairs and First Things (followed up by some remarks at The Josias), integralist intellectual figurehead Adrian Vermeule outlined perhaps the clearest theoretical “path to power” for modern-day integralists: quiet entrenchment in the bureaucratic apparatus. For Vermeule, “in the setting of the administrative state, these agents may have a great deal of discretion to further human dignity and the common good, defined entirely in substantive rather than procedural-technical terms.”
It’s not a coincidence that Cass Sunstein, Vermeule’s frequent contributor, is a champion of “nudging”—the notion that clever policy designers can, through a bit of subconscious priming of individuals who don’t know they’re being manipulated, produce dramatically improved outcomes without triggering much pushback. Transposed into a Catholic key, this way of thinking suggests that the giant American government, if staffed by the right higher-ups, might undertake a project of “nudging” its citizens towards Christian virtue without inspiring mass backlash. So far, so plausible. (In fact, this approach sounds an awful lot like the strategy pursued by evangelicals ever since the days of the Moral Majority.)
But why stop there? For Vermeule,
[t]he Christian adviser to pagan kings and powers is a type frequently encountered in Scripture—in, of course, the prefigured guise of the Jewish adviser to Gentile kings and powers. Mordecai, Joseph, and Daniel all fit the pattern, as does Esther in a different but equally important way. The adviser makes himself indispensable and thereby creates a reservoir of professional credibility, or personal loyalty, or delegated political power, to use when necessary on behalf of the Church. . . . Sometimes, of course, as in Daniel’s case, the regime forces the adviser to the test, requiring him to declare those ultimate commitments and then to pass through a fiery trial, or, in Esther’s case, to test the boundaries of the law. Sometimes, the only result will be that the Christian is driven out of public life, or loses a job, or a professional license, in a kind of low-temperature martyrdom. But sometimes, as is also true in Esther’s case, the adviser may in the end turn the tables on her political foes.
More recently, Vermeule seems to have moved toward a full embrace of this latter approach—a willingness to effect more dramatic political change by striking while the iron is hot.
Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.
On this view, a few well-placed people in the right institutions can push for sweeping top-down changes, and the great majority of the population will simply acquiesce (or be made to acquiesce). “Nudging”—the essence of which, after all, is apparent noncoercion—isn’t in the cards anymore. This turn, I think, helps explain why a number of prominent integralists have so openly embraced President Trump’s political project: why take a long-term, incrementalist approach when the possibility of real crisis and transformation is at hand?
For proponents of this view, the case of Poland is quite problematic. When even a somewhat incremental shift in Poland’s abortion law—rape and maternal life/health exceptions still remain—triggers this much backlash in a famously Catholic society, alarm bells should be going off for anyone who thinks that social transformation is simply a matter of installing the right elites, who can then force the right policies into law. I’m not sure how one moves from vandalizing churches to “thanking the ruler”—it seems much more likely that the “ruler” is simply forced out of power. Perhaps there’s an angle to this I’m not considering, but it seems to me that this is about the closest thing to prima facie evidence one can get against a vanguard approach to integralist politics.
But is there any alternative?
For my own part, burned out by what seems like an increasingly unconstructive set of internecine debates, I’ve started looking for insights outside the usual places. As Sinologist Edward Slingerland put it in a recent book, “alternative philosophical traditions . . . can be of enormous help in breaking one out of philosophical dead ends.” More thoughts on that to come.